Which is best…Coke or Pepsi? Bombers or Riders? Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby? Mac or PC? John Deere or New Holland? (Do these with images and invite people to “vote.”)
Clearly on many issues the best is very subjective. We have our opinions and reasons for believing them, but other people hold just as dearly to their opinions for their own reasons.
The Bible invites us to compare God to others. Isaiah 40:18 asks, "To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?" Exodus 15:11 declares clearly that God is the best when it says, "“Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?" Micah 7:18 also asks, “Who is a God like you who pardons sin and forgives…transgression…” In asking this question Micah invites us to recognize God’s matchless forgiveness.
The primary text will be Micah 7:18-20 and other will be Luke 15:11-32, which we have already read. So let’s read Micah 7:18-20.
Three lines in verses 18, 19a reveal the character of God out of which forgiveness arises.
First of all, it says “You do not stay angry forever.” Anger is appropriate when a wrong has been done. It is right to be angry when a 15 year old steals a car and kills a police officer. It is right to be angry when innocent bystanders are killed in a gang war. It is right to be angry when 6 million Jews are killed just because they are Jews.
God also gets angry at such evil and injustice, but God doesn’t stay angry. The Hebrew implies that God does not hold tightly to anger. It is a good thing that He does not because if He did, we would all be doomed because all of us are guilty of sin. Justified anger is a part of God’s character, but so is letting go of that anger.
Instead of holding on to anger, we read that God “delights to show mercy.” The first definition of mercy in Merriam Webster’s dictionary is, “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender.” When God forgives, He shows mercy to those who deserve punishment. But what strikes me most powerfully about this phrase is that God “delights” to show mercy. What do you delight in? What do you do about that in which you delight? Do you delight to eat dessert? If you do you don’t refuse it when it is served. Do you delight to call a friend? If you do, you call them often and never consider it a burden. Do you delight to work in your garden? If you do, you gladly go out there and spend time in it and never consider how long you have to be there before you can go in. What a special thing to realize that God delights to show mercy. He is glad to do it. He does it quickly. He does it often.
The third line is that God has compassion. He cares about those in need. He does that which is loving and which is best for those on whom He has compassion.
Each of these phrases expresses something of God’s character and it is out of His character that God forgives. Because He does not stay angry, because He delights in mercy and is compassionate, He desires to forgive all who come to Him.
The matchlessness of God’s forgiveness is revealed in these characteristics. For God to forgive in this way is absolutely astounding for a number of reasons.
It is amazing that God delights to forgive because God has more to forgive than anyone else. It is easy to forgive when someone does a minor wrong to you once every five years, but with God every creature He made is sinning against Him several times every day! That is a lot of sin to forgive! In Psalm 51:4, David recognizes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
Furthermore, recognizing that God forgives out of His character is also amazing because He doesn’t forgive as an equal, but as one who is holy. If we forgive another it is the right thing to do, but it is also wise because we know that sooner or later we will need forgiveness because we will wrong someone. God is holy. He has never done anything wrong and will never need forgiveness. God is holy and as the holy Lord every wrong done in the universe violates His holiness. So if God forgives, it is an act contrary to His holiness. When God forgives out of the mercy of His inner character He must violate another aspect of His character and that is His holiness. How can God do that? Paul picks up on that when he speaks about what Jesus has done and recognizes that the death of Christ on the cross allows God to forgive. In Romans 3:26 we read, "…he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus."
God’s forgiveness is matchless because it arises out of His holy and compassionate character.
The matchlessness of God’s forgiveness is further revealed in verse 19b where we read, "…you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea." These two images reveal how completely we are forgiven.
When 5 kings had waged war against Israel just after they entered the Promised Land, they were captured. Then we read in Joshua 10:24-26, “When they had brought these kings to Joshua, he summoned all the men of Israel and said to the army commanders who had come with him, ‘Come here and put your feet on the necks of these kings.’ So they came forward and placed their feet on their necks. Joshua said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Be strong and courageous. This is what the Lord will do to all the enemies you are going to fight.’" When they put their feet on the necks of these kings it is an imagery of conquest and victory. Micah says “…you will tread our sins underfoot” and I believe that such a picture of conquest helps us understand what God has done to our sins. He has shown His power over them by stomping on them. One commentator says that this means that God will, “conquer their power and tyranny by His compassion…”
The other image teaches us that when God forgives, our sins are gone. In 1912 the Titanic made its first voyage and we know that the disastrous results of that voyage were that it sank and more than 1500 people lost their lives in the marine disaster. The boat went down in about 4 km of water, too deep to get to for many years, besides which they did not know exactly where it had gone down. Finally in 1985 they found where the Titanic had gone down and from then on they began to search the area and bring back artifacts. Every expedition to discover what happened and recover things from the area has been very costly and very difficult and dangerous for those attempting it. That is what happens to things that are cast into the sea. They become difficult to retrieve. What a blessing to know that that is where our sins have been cast by God. It helps us to understand just how completely God forgives our sins. They are put beyond reach, we are completely forgiven.
There are other passages which communicate the same kind of message. Psalm 103:12 says, "as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." In Isaiah 38:17 we read, "…you have put all my sins behind your back." God puts our sins where He will not see them, where He will not be reminded of them. Jeremiah 50:20 seems to describe a “hide and seek” situation when it says, "In those days, at that time,” declares the Lord, “search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare."
Have you ever played “remember when?” When Carla and I were traveling we played it a few times as we passed places that held memories. Do you ever play “remember when” with your sins? How often we dredge up the sins we have committed and feel guilty for them all over again. Our shame and guilt surfaces all over again as we remember what we have done wrong. God does not do that. He has forgiven us and the matchlessness of His forgiveness is that when He forgives it is gone. What a joy to know the completeness of God’s forgiveness!
We have already noticed that God forgives sin because of His character of compassion and mercy. Verse 20 gives us another reason why God forgives sin and that is because of His promises. Micah makes reference to that when he says in verse 20, "You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago.”
Long ago, God promised that He would create a people whom He would bless and through whom the world would be blessed. The first time this promise was made to Abraham was in Genesis 12:2 where God said, "“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing." With this promise God began a covenant relationship with His people.
But over and over again the people of Israel rebelled against God and turned from following Him. But God has never stopped being faithful to the covenant promises He has made. Repeatedly, as the children of Israel rebelled, God forgave their sins and restored them.
The Bible is full of this concept of the gracious forgiveness of God who keeps the promises He makes. In Deuteronomy 7:9 Moses encouraged the people, "Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands." When Solomon dedicated the temple in II Chronicles 6:14 he prayed in confidence, "O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven or on earth—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way." As the days of the Babylonian exile neared an end, Daniel prayed in Daniel 9:4, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands…" When the walls were rebuilt after the exile, Nehemiah reminded the people of their history in Nehemiah 9:17, "They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them…"
This is the nature of our God. He has made promises and even though we are always wandering away from Him and He has had to deal with our rebellion and sin, He has chosen to do so through His great and generous forgiveness. Once again we see the matchlessness of God’s forgiveness.
Earlier in the service we read the story of the two sons and the father. In this story a father forgives his rebellious younger son and pleads for his obedient older son to recognize the blessing of forgiveness. What stands out in this parable is the gracious and loving actions of the father. We understand that it is a picture of our heavenly Father and His grace and forgiveness. This parable provides several more reasons why God’s forgiveness is matchless.
The sins of the younger son were many. The worst sin of all was the broken relationship with the father. Geddert points out that although it is possible the younger son sinned in many ways, the text does not really record many sins. Nothing immoral is recorded in the story, although we can imagine immorality as the older brother does when he accuses him of spending his money on prostitutes. Nothing illegal is recorded in the story. He had a right to his inheritance and a right to do what he wanted with his money. When the younger son came to his senses, he realized that his sin was against his father and against heaven. He realized that he had broken relationship with his father and that broken relationship was very serious. So when this younger son finally realized what he had done, he returned confessing his sins and showing willingness to accept whatever consequences there might be.
The father’s forgiveness is clearly and deeply spelled out in his wonderful actions in receiving his son. As we read this, it is meant to speak of our Father’s matchless forgiveness.
The first action of the father was that he noticed the coming son already “when he was a long way off.” That speaks volumes about the grace of our Father who desires to see his children restored to relationship. Then we read that he had compassion for him. We have already seen how God’s forgiveness arises out of His compassion. We read that he “ran to his son.” He was so eager to restore him that he didn’t wait for the son to make the whole journey back. Then we read that he “threw his arms around him and kissed him.” As you process this image you must remember that the son had just come on a long journey and was sweaty and dirty from travel. In fact, most likely the smell of pigs was still on what little clothes he may have been wearing. What kind of grace it takes to hug and kiss someone that dirty! Before the son could complete his confession, the father already called for servants to shower the son with gifts of restoration. He was given a robe to cover the tattered and smelly clothes he was wearing. He was given a ring to indicate restoration of status. He was given shoes, the clothing of a master, not a slave.
In all of these gracious acts of forgiveness, one of the most powerful is the fact that the father ran to him and embraced and kissed him. Dr. Kenneth Bailey was a professor of Biblical Studies in Jerusalem. He did much research and read Scripture in the villages of Palestine among the people of the land and learned a very valuable lesson about this parable from them. They told him that a man like the father would never run. To run would be far below the dignity of a man of his station. It would mean that he would have to lift his robes and disgrace himself as he moved like a child or a slave. The importance of that is that it demonstrates the cost to the father to restore his son. He was willing to pay the price for the restoration of his son by his own loss of dignity. Geddert says, “The father who was so scorned by his younger son did something himself that would make him a laughingstock. He made a fool of himself by picking up his garments and running. That was unheard of for a man his age in that culture.” He goes on to say, “Grace is a loving God taking on our shame and exchanging it for glory.”
For God to forgive us also cost a lot. He sent His only son to become a human being and to die on the cross. The matchlessness of God’s forgiveness is seen in what it cost the Father to forgive.
The story of the prodigal son and the two parables which precede it also demonstrate the matchlessness of God’s forgiveness as they reveal the joy of the Father to forgive.
The story has often been called the story of the prodigal son, but Geddert points out that we have probably not named the story accurately. The son was a prodigal, but the story demonstrates that the father was also prodigal. I suspect that if I asked you what prodigal meant I might get answers like, disobedient, immoral or wasteful. I have to confess that I never knew what the word meant until this week. My impression of what it meant came from this story alone because I have never used the word in any other context or heard it used in any other context. According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary the word actually means, “…characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure.” So, for example, someone who would celebrate his 5 year old son’s birthday by taking him, his siblings and all his friends to Disneyland would be a prodigal. We can certainly see how that describes the son. He blew his whole fortune on wild living. But if we look at these stories carefully we learn that the father was also prodigal. We don’t know all of the financial details of what would have been involved in the division of the inheritance nor what the father lived on after it was divided. He obviously still had resources and after his younger son had squandered a large portion of his original estate, he was still willing to spend wildly to celebrate his return. The older brother understood the extravagance of the welcome party. He remarked that his father hadn’t even given him a goat to celebrate with his friends, but he was willing to kill the fatted calf in order to celebrate his brother’s return!
This extravagant joy in offering forgiveness permeates this whole chapter. Verse 7 says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” In verse 10 we read, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Then in verse 24 the father says, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Later in inviting the older son to join the party he says in verse 32, “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Each of the other parables invite celebration because of the return of one who is lost. Geddert writes about them, “…he threw a great party that cost him far more than the one sheep he could have left out there in the cold…He loved his sheep so much that he was willing to kill the fatted calf to celebrate the herd that was complete again.” “…she promptly blew the whole piggy bank to throw a party with her friends…”
The joy of God to forgive sinners is surely one of the themes of these parables and demonstrates the matchlessness of God’s forgiveness. These parables were written for just such a message. They were written in the context of Pharisees who complained about Jesus who “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Geddert says, “What a waste! But if even one sheep is found, one coin is found, one child comes home, well, he would spend his whole fortune to make that happen. That’s just how God is.” How wonderful to recognize the joy of God to forgive. Surely He is matchless in His forgiveness!
In these texts we have seen the matchlessness of the Father’s forgiveness, who forgives because of his character of mercy, who forgives completely because He has promised to restore His people. Who has spent a great deal in order to forgive and who rejoices when He is able to forgive. I have put the focus on the Father and my intent is to lift Him up. The opening line of Micah 7:18 invites us to such admiration when it calls us to consider “Who is a God like you…”
But there is another perspective from which to consider these texts and that is the perspective of those who are in a place to receive God’s forgiveness.
On the one hand, there is the perspective of the younger son who came to the place where he hit rock bottom and knew that the only way up was down on his knees in repentance. The matchlessness of God’s forgiveness invites all who know they are sinners to bow humbly before our Father and repent and know that He rejoices to forgive. If you know your sins, then I invite you to repent and come to God to receive the grace of His forgiveness.
The other perspective is that urged by the response of the older son who had always obeyed his father, but failed also in that he did not have a good relationship with his father. He served the father, but he did not love the father. The father invited the older son to join the party and to recognize the matchlessness of God’s forgiveness. When the story ends we don’t know if he joined in or not. It is deliberately left open ended. That ending leaves the invitation with us. Will we join in celebrating the matchlessness of God’s forgiveness or will we walk away in our self righteousness begrudging a relationship with our father and the grace extended to all who receive God’s extravagant forgiveness?